Lymphoma is a blood cancer in which white blood cells called lymphocytes develop abnormally and grow out of control. There are two main types of lymphoma — Hodgkin lymphoma (HL, also called Hodgkin disease or Hodgkin’s disease) and non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL, also called non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma). Both types of lymphoma are cancers of the lymphatic system, which is part of the body’s immune system. A functioning lymphatic system protects the body by removing bacteria, excess fluid, and waste matter from old or damaged cells. The lymphatic system consists of the bone marrow, spleen, lymph nodes, thymus, and other organs, as well as vessels that transport fluids throughout the body. Lymphoma is related to other blood cancer types, including leukemia, myeloma, and myeloproliferative neoplasms.
Many symptoms of Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma overlap. Several of the symptoms of both illnesses can also be caused by flu, colds, or other blood cancers. The Lymphoma Research Foundation recommends seeking medical attention if symptoms last more than two weeks or if they are impeding your daily activities.
It’s possible to have HL or NHL without obvious symptoms or not exhibit symptoms until the cancer is more advanced, according to the American Cancer Society.
Lymphoma symptoms will vary depending on where the cancer originated, which parts of your body are affected, and the type of lymphoma you have. Lymphoma symptoms can be local or systemic. Local symptoms affect a specific area of the body, while systemic symptoms are more general or impact the entire body.
Some of the most common symptoms of lymphoma are:
All of these symptoms can also be the result of medical issues unrelated to lymphoma or other cancers.
People with Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphoma can experience what are known as B symptoms. B symptoms are systemic, meaning they affect your entire body rather than one localized area. B symptoms include drenching night sweats, unexplained fever, and unintentional weight loss of at least 10 percent of your body weight. The presence or lack of B symptoms is important for staging your lymphoma and determining your treatment. B symptoms can occur in early stage and later stage lymphoma.
Not everyone with Hodgkin lymphoma experiences obvious symptoms. In some cases, people are diagnosed with HL after an unrelated blood test shows signs of lymphoma or during a physical examination where a doctor notices swollen lymph nodes. The following are symptoms frequently associated with Hodgkin lymphoma; however, it is not an exhaustive list of all possible symptoms.
Swollen or enlarged lymph nodes around the neck, underarms, or groin are the most common symptom of Hodgkin lymphoma. Usually painless, the swelling of lymph nodes produces lumps under the skin that may grow over time. Lymph nodes swell because of a build-up of abnormal lymphocytes. Swollen lymph nodes can be caused by other cancers as well as common infections.
Some people experience a cough or difficulty breathing if lymph nodes in the chest swell and put pressure on the trachea (windpipe). Individuals may also experience pain or pressure in the chest for the same reason. Shortness of breath can be the result of anemia (low red blood cell count). Anemia can be a sign of cancer cells in the bone marrow. Approximately 5 percent of people have Hodgkin lymphoma cells in their bone marrow when diagnosed with HL.
Drenching night sweats, fever, and unexplained weight loss — known as B symptoms — can be caused by the immune system’s response to lymphoma cells. About a quarter of people with HL will experience B symptoms or other systemic symptoms.
Cancer fatigue goes beyond regular tiredness. Rather, it is an exhaustion that doesn’t improve with rest. Fatigue can be a symptom of anemia, which may be caused by cancer cells in the bone marrow.
Sometimes people with HL notice itchy skin or lymph node pain after drinking alcohol. This may be related to an enlarged spleen or blood flow changes in response to drinking.
Read more about the signs and symptoms of Hodgkin lymphoma.
Many of the symptoms of Hodgkin lymphoma also occur in non-Hodgkin lymphoma. These include:
Systemic symptoms occur in about a third of people with high-grade NHL, according to Lymphoma Action. Sudden weight loss can be an early warning sign of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
The following symptoms are also associated with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, though not everyone with NHL will experience all of them.
A swollen abdomen may be the result of enlarged lymph nodes, accumulated fluid, or an enlarged liver or spleen. Swelling in the stomach may be a sign that the lymphoma originates in or has spread to the stomach.
Nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, and abdominal pain can indicate swollen lymph nodes in the abdomen or an enlarged spleen. Enlarged lymph nodes in the abdomen and an enlarged spleen can put pressure on the stomach or other nearby organs. This pressure can reduce appetite or cause pain.
A person with NHL may experience frequent infections because of decreased white blood cell counts. Low white blood cell counts can be a sign that cancer cells are present in the bone marrow.
Headaches, weakness in the body, personality changes, or fuzzy thinking can be signs of primary brain lymphoma. Blurry or double vision, numbness in the face, or problems speaking may indicate that lymphoma has spread to the brain or spinal cord.
Symptoms of depression are common among people with cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, 15 percent to 25 percent of individuals with cancer experience depression. Depression may be triggered by the stress and worry that can come with a cancer diagnosis or from the challenges of living with a chronic medical condition.
Reach out to your health care team if you’re experiencing symptoms of depression. Treating depression has benefits for people living with cancer, and may even improve outcomes. Treatment options for depression may include medications and psychotherapy. A support network of family, friends, support groups, and online communities like MyLymphomaTeam can help you cope with the emotional challenges of cancer.
In addition to symptoms of lymphoma itself, you may experience side effects from lymphoma treatments like chemotherapy, radiation therapy, stem cell transplants, or other therapies. Common side effects of lymphoma treatment include:
Symptoms of lymphoma and treatment side effects may vary widely from person to person. Always report new or worsening symptoms or side effects to your doctor. Many symptoms and side effects can be managed with medications or lifestyle changes.
Lymphoma Condition Guide